Facing tragedy after tragedy, Puerto Ricans form mutual aid societies to help heal and rebuild their communities. Their old wisdom saying holds true, and inspires communities around the globe: “Only the people save the people.”
I grew up hearing a common saying in Puerto Rico: “Mándeme más si más me merezco”—send me more if I deserve more. I always heard this used to signal suffering. It was a way to indicate that a higher being was “sending” obstacles and that you should be able to manage them or overcome the hardship. The phrase likely feels fitting for many people across the world to sum up the experience of the year 2020 so far.
As I scroll through social media and come across memes that capture that sentiment—what else is 2020 going to throw at humanity?—I think of Puerto Rico. But for Puerto Rico, it is not only 2020 that has brought disasters, death, and suffering. Rather, 2020 has been a more complicated year than usual because its crises have a compounding effect. People in Puerto Rico have long endured colonialism, corruption, and a deep economic recession. Then, in 2017, two major hurricanes devastated the archipelago amid an ongoing debt crisis. Thousands of Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane María and thousands more lost their homes. A little over two years later, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake was felt across Puerto Rico on January 7, 2020, plunging the archipelago into a total power blackout for days. Though earthquakes are common in Puerto Rico, they are usually not very strong, and it had been more than 100 years since one had caused homes to crack and collapse. All these events, realities, and experiences amplified the effects of the next crisis.
And yet, in Puerto Rico there’s another common saying: Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo—only the people save the people. This mantra became a rallying cry for Puerto Ricans on the archipelago and in the diaspora in Hurricane María’s devastating aftermath. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are relegated, as are other colonial subjects, to second-class citizenship. The inequalities of this relationship are lived on all fronts, from political disenfranchisement at the federal level to the management of disaster aid at the local level. Since the Obama administration assigned a fiscal oversight board in 2016 to manage Puerto Rico’s budget in the face of its multimillion-dollar debt load, it has become increasingly clear that no one is going to step in and do right by the people of Puerto Rico.
This realization has led to increased grassroots organization focused on addressing the immediate needs of different sectors of the population. During a 2017 student strike against austerity and cuts to public education at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), activists organized comedores sociales, community kitchens for socialized food distribution. The initiative grew out of earlier student organizing to address food insecurity on UPR campuses in 2013. These efforts aimed to assure that the basic needs of people suffering hunger would be met at least in some small way, and these experiences would become all the more important when the next crises hit.
Mutual aid in Puerto Rico is a story about injustice and lack of access to resources and power channeled into action in order to survive.
Mutual aid in Puerto Rico is a story about injustice and lack of access to resources and power channeled into action in order to survive. Tired of watching people die after Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans needed to do two things: fill the immediate gaps in order to keep people alive and, at the same time, continue to demand accountability and action from governments. Disaster relief funds and supplies were slow to reach communities in need. Some people buried their dead in their backyards, thousands left for the U.S. mainland, and a year after the hurricane some people were still living without electrical service. It was evident: The state had collapsed. The protest signs that read “Only the people save the people” took on a new and raw meaning.
If Puerto Ricans were to wait for the state—federal or local—to address the absolute devastation and lack of resources, many would die waiting. During that time, multiple organizations—mostly based on grassroots groups that existed prior to the hurricane—quickly organized to channel aid. The Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (Solidarity Brigade of the West), ISER Caribe, Puerto Rico Rises–Forever Preciosa, and the Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Centers for Mutual Aid) are some examples of the multiple organizations and initiatives that helped with collecting and distributing supplies and rebuilding. All Puerto Ricans gained some level of experience with these activities.
Amid these grassroots efforts, the concept of mutual aid—and the idea that doing something for your neighbors meant also doing something for yourself—gained traction. I am an activist and a scholar and, having been an activist far longer than I have been a scholar, I have tried my best to use my anthropological skills to support community organizing and mutual aid efforts. Community-based work in the face of multiple crises in Arenas, a small community Puerto Rico’s Guánica municipality, shows just how crucial these lessons would be in 2020.
From Aftershocks to Mutual Aid
The earthquake that woke Puerto Ricans up on January 7, 2020 was felt in every town across the archipelago. Hurricane María left the entirety of Puerto Rico cut off and in a terrible state, but the earthquake’s destruction was more localized, specifically in the towns of the Southwest and in the central mountainous region. The type of disaster was also novel. After a hurricane passes, you step outside and start cleaning up. Earthquakes of the magnitude we experienced do not just pass—they continue with multiple aftershocks. After the initial days of the blackout, once we could go out and purchase goods, caravans of cars loaded with water, food, camping tents, and other supplies began arriving in the most affected areas. Many communities and groups were already organized due to their experience with Hurricane María. This enabled them to immediately carry out disaster-relief work with the framework of mutual aid.
As residents and communities, we created grassroots structures and informal networks that would be critical to channeling aid and addressing the community needs quickly. It took the federal and local governments several weeks to start fulfilling their obligations. As the ground continued to tremble and shake, every weekend car and truck caravans showed up with people seeking to offer a helping hand. They looked on as damaged homes, business and places of worship came close to collapsing with every aftershock. Affected people slept in their cars, on air mattresses outside their homes, and in tents pitched on municipal baseball fields.
In the community of Arenas, we—both outside volunteers and residents—developed and administered a brief community census to get a sense of the demographics, damage, and residents’ needs. This allowed the community and volunteers to channel supplies to meet specific needs. For example, community leaders knew which families had small children and were able to direct clothes, games and toys, and diapers accordingly. Tents and cots were distributed to residents who, for fear of their homes collapsing, were sleeping outside. Community leaders also created a code to identify the homes where people with mobility difficulties lived in order to respond rapidly in the event of a building collapse.
As of this writing in July 2020, families affected by the earthquake remain without safe homes. That is the thing with mutual aid. Mutual aid ensures that your neighbors have water and food, or that the family sleeping outside in the ballpark has a tent and a plastic box for their food so rodents don’t eat it. But mutual aid does not generate the massive capital needed to solve the problems of those affected, and it cannot replace the role the state needs to play.
Mutual aid is not the same as charity. Mutual aid is based on respect for the people affected, acknowledging that they know what they need, that they must be listened to, and that they must lead the initiative. Mutual aid disrupts charity’s narrative of assistance as something framed from the side of the person giving, not those receiving. Mutual aid empowers communities and individuals and creates relationships that then form the basis of how supplies, programs, equipment, and other goods and services are organized and used in the community. Charity is transient, but mutual aid is meant to be long lasting. Mutual aid fills some gaps in order to keep people and hope alive, and to create a social foundation to continue to rally together and send the message: “We are still here; we are not defeated. We are still alive.”
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Isa Rodríguez Soto is an independent scholar and applied anthropologist in Puerto Rico. Her research interests include gender, health, and social movements in Puerto Rico. She received her PhD in Global Health from Arizona State University. She has coauthored articles that were published in CENTRO Journal, Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, and Current Anthropology.